The Cultural Landscape Foundation today released Landslide 2022, an annual thematic report and exhibition about threatened and at-risk landscapes, focusing on twelve sites designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., and his successor firms, a founder of the discipline of landscape architecture best known as the co-designer of Central Park in New York City.
This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Olmsted Sr. (1822-1903). The sites feature the involvement of one or more of all three Olmsteds: Olmsted Sr., his son Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), and stepson John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920).
The threats range from climate change, confiscation of parkland, lack of recognition, insufficient funding, disease, and deferred maintenance to outright erasure. The sites include three in New York State: Planting Fields (Oyster Bay), Downing Park (Newburgh), and Genesee Valley Park (Rochester); plus several others.
The exhibition and report feature an introduction, themes that delineate common challenges affecting the sites, an illustrated history of each site, historic, contemporary, and newly commissioned photography, the threats posed, and what people can do to help. The intent of the report is to generate greater awareness about Olmstead’s legacy, and to encourage shared responsibility for its protection.
Here are the Landslide 2022 sites:
California State Parks System
In 1927 the California State Legislature put a plan in motion to create a “comprehensive, well balanced state park system.” The California State Park Commission hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., of the Olmsted Brothers firm, who partnered with regional landscape architects and scores of volunteers to create a survey identifying potential public parks that would represent the state’s wide-ranging ecology, scenery, and history. Working with a bare-bones budget of $15,000 Olmsted’s recommendations resulted in an initial $12 million (more than $204 million today) towards parkland acquisition. Over the longer-term, Olmsted’s vision resulted in the creation of 125 of California’s 280 State Parks encompassing the following categories: sea coast parks; redwood and woodland parks; mountain, lake, and river parks; desert parks; and historic and scientific parks. The increasing frequency and effects of climate change including wildfires and coastal erosion pose threats to this network of State Parks.
Deepdene Park at Druid Hills, Atlanta, GA
Deepdene Park is a 22-acre woodland first set aside by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., as part of a 45-acre linear park system linked by Ponce de Leon Avenue designed for the Kirkwood Land Development Company as part of the Druid Hills subdivision in 1893. The 1,300-acre Picturesque community is the only such subdivision on which all three Olmsteds (Frederick Law Sr., Frederick Law Jr., and John Charles) were involved. The final plans for Druid Hills were produced by the Olmsted Brothers firm in 1905, two years after Olmsted Sr.’s death. Deepdene, one of six parks in the system, is characterized by its steep perimeter edges that slope towards a tributary of the Peavine Creek. Deepdene Park is currently owned by Fernbank Inc., which leases it to the DeKalb County Department of Parks and Recreation. Construction delays and missteps involving drainage have resulted in significant erosion in the park and downstream areas.
Andrew Jackson Downing Park, Newburgh, NY
The 35-acre Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park in Newburgh, Orange County, NY, which opened on July 4, 1897 (2022 is its 125th anniversary), is the only project in the United States on which two generations of Olmsteds (Frederick Law Sr. and John Charles) and Vauxs (Calvert and Downing) collaborated. The work was done pro bono with the shared understanding that it would be created in honor of the influential designer, horticulturalist, and author who tragically died in 1852 at the age of 36. The neighborhood park contains many signature Picturesque features found in more expansive Olmsted-Vaux sites, including rolling topography, paths winding through parkland dotted with stately trees, expansive meadows, and a pond for recreation and reflection. Chronic under-funding has resulted in long-lasting deterioration. There are also plans to insert a new memorial, which needs to be sensitively addressed, featuring the re-interment of remains of more than 100 African Americans from a former nineteenth century “Colored Burial Ground.”
Franklin Park, Boston, MA
The 526-acre park is the largest in the 1,100-acre chain of parks known as the Emerald Necklace, meant to serve as Boston’s “central” park. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., with John Charles Olmsted, completed the general plan in 1885. John Charles Olmsted supervised construction through 1896. In 1949, thirteen acres of meadow within the park were confiscated for Shattuck Hospital. That facility is now scheduled for demolition. Today, some 200 acres of parkland are no longer open free to visitors (a golf course and zoo require entrance fees and there are also maintenance facilities), park advocates want a more equitable solution, returning the site to use as public park lands; state officials want to use the site for healthcare and housing services.
Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, NY
Along with Louisville, KY, Rochester in Monroe County, NY is the only other park system designed and planned by all three Olmsteds. At 543 acres, Genesee Valley Park is one of three major parks, comprising the original system, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., in 1890. It was built as designed, as a rolling pastoral park on both sides of a broad curving section of the Genesee River. In 1969 ownership of a portion of the northeast quadrant of the park was conveyed to the University of Rochester for the expansion of its campus. The university wants to raze 1.5 acres of woodland and redevelop it as generic warehouse space, paving over a significant area of the landscape in the process, which would lead to erosion of the riverbank and loss of wildlife habitat, while also causing severe detriment to scenic viewsheds from a number of crucial vantage points, including from and across the river. The proposal conflicts with each of the four goals detailed in the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2020 report, “New York State Forest Action Plan” including “Keeping New York Forests as Forests” and “keeping them Healthy.” The Preservation League of New York State has included the Genesee Valley Park on the 2022-2023 Seven to Save list. This listing follows an earlier inclusion of the Olmsted-designed pedestrian bridges of Genesee Valley Park on the 2014 Seven to Save list.
City of Lake Wales, Lake Wales, FL
The City of Lake Wales was envisioned as a planned “Garden City” by the founders of the Lake Wales Land Company who established the town site in the first decade of the 20th century. Local resident philanthropist Edward Bok, while engaged in the construction of his adjacent “Singing Tower” (now a National Historic Landmark), then retained Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., of the Olmsted Brothers firm to develop a comprehensive planting strategy for the town’s twenty miles of streets. Compounded with damage caused by at least seven major hurricanes, including the recent impacts of Hurricane Ian in 2022, deferred maintenance and the end of trees’ lifespans has led to significant tree loss and the degradation of the Olmsted firm’s carefully choreographed planting design. The cathedral of towering Washingtonia palms and understory trees along road edges were intended to frame views and provide a pleasing driving experience along roadways and pedestrian pathways, not to mention dappled light, critical shade, and insect and wildlife habitat. Its loss threatens and diminishes the unique community character that gives Lake Wales its sense of place.
Olmsted Woods at National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
In 1898 the first Bishop of Washington, Henry Yates Satterlee, began to acquire the National Cathedral site for the Protestant Episcopal Foundation. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., was asked to ready the land for the laying of the cathedral’s cornerstone on September 29, 1907. In a talk given in 1919 Olmsted Jr. spoke about the “great charm of approaching the Cathedral through and up a wooded hillside, leaving the city far behind and below.” Olmsted’s vision provided the five-acre wooded district as a core component and visually appealing rural retreat from the city, offering an accessible point of entry to an otherwise grand cathedral. Known today as the “Olmsted Woods,” this area includes the last vestige of an extensive oak and beech forest on Mount St. Alban and is a critical component of the Potomac River Basin watershed. Weather extremes – excessive rain and droughts – combined with substantially increased visitor numbers, have led to major erosion and damage to the park’s infrastructure and the loss of mature, canopy trees.
Planting Fields, Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY
Known today as The Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, this Olmsted-designed landscape has a complex and layered history. Creation of the estate for William Robinson Coe began in 1913 when the Coes purchased the Nassau County, Long Island site. James Greenleaf, Guy Lowell, Andrew Sargent, and the Olmsted Brothers firm all played a role in shaping the 409-acre landscape. Beginning in 1918, and for the next twenty years, Olmsted Brothers produced more than 350 plans (second only to the number of plans for Biltmore in Ashville, N.C.) and worked closely with the Coes and their architects, designers, and horticulturists to create a landscape setting for a multifaceted country estate. One of the property’s most iconic features was its expansive collection of European Beech trees. Today, two life-threatening diseases, including one first identified in 2012 and found at Plantings Fields in 2021, have targeted the trees (and beeches generally). The death of these trees, which contribute considerably to the property’s character, would be a significant loss to both the Olmsted design intent and the arboretum’s living collections.
Seattle Parks and Boulevard System, Seattle, WA
In 1903, the Olmsted Brothers firm, under the leadership of John Charles Olmsted, developed “A Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways” for Seattle’s Board of Park Commissioners. So began a relationship between the city and the Olmsted firm that would span 33 years, concluding with the firm’s proposals for Washington Park Arboretum. The challenge for the systems connective tissue – Seattle’s Olmsted Boulevard System – is incremental chipping away at its essential continuity and intended carefully orchestrated movement through myriad landscape typologies. Over the years there have been impacts that sever connections between parks and residential enclaves, once purposefully linked by twenty miles of tree lined boulevards. New development encroaching along parks’ edges has led to the removal of vegetation, obscured views, and restricted access to public space, while various plans to reroute or amplify multi-modal transportation along the boulevards has resulted in truncated sections, realigned intersections, and expanding hard edges, all collectively interrupting the coherence of the interconnected system that weaves through the city.
Sunalta, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
The Sunalta Addition (now known as Scarboro) is one of only two fully executed Olmsted residential communities in Canada. Designed by John Charles Olmsted, it was Calgary’s first “Picturesque” suburb and is illustrative of the boom era there from 1903 to 1913. Sunalta (short for “sunny” and “Alberta”) reflects the firm’s philosophy that a well-planned suburb can combine the charms of the country with the convenience of the city. Sensitivity to the site’s topography, setting, as well as a planned hierarchy of interconnected roads and paths, public spaces and amenities are all designed to foster social interaction. The threat to Scarboro comes from prospective developers’ interest, supported by city land use policy, to increase density in this inner-city neighborhood, and a lack of interest by municipal and provincial officials towards certifying historic districts.
Veterans Memorial Parkway, Providence, R.I.
Barrington Parkway, renamed Veterans Memorial Parkway after thee Second World War, is a winding scenic parkway from Warren Avenue to Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence, Rhode Island. The Olmsted Brothers firm were engaged by the city in first decade of the twentieth century and, under the direction of project managers Olmsted Jr. and Percy Reginald Jones, prepared 245 plans for the roadway which runs two-and-a-half miles along the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay and offers the driver carefully framed views of both scenic natural features and the city’s bustling industrial waterfront. While a National Register of Historic Places nomination, which could have provided a greater understanding and visibility for this rare Olmsted commission in East Providence, was prepared in 1991, it did not advance. Today, as the waterfront rapidly develops, this scenic drive’s borrowed views are privatized and the continuity of its intended ribbon of trees and landscaped medians is being threatened or altered by generic engineering solutions that include roundabouts, stoplights, and stop signs.
Washington Park, Milwaukee, WI
Washington Park, originally known as West Park, became a public asset when the Milwaukee Board of Park Commissioners purchased 125 acres in 1891. The following year, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., then of Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, began producing plans for the park. John Charles Olmsted and Warren Manning were also on the design team; the latter supervised the planting of some 12,000 trees and shrubs in 1896-97. The park currently suffers from years of disinvestment. A 2000 master plan for the park’s revitalization has been partially realized. In 2018 a Historic District Designation was submitted to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. Lake Park, another Milwaukee Olmsted site, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Local designation of Washington Park has been challenged by, among others, the Urban Ecology Center, which leases a building on the site that it wishes to expand. Current and future project work would benefit from overarching guidelines and principles for managing this nationally significant historic park, which is owned by Milwaukee County.
Related Olmsted Bicentennial Activities
Landslide 2022: The Olmstead Design Legacy can be found on web here.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation has created the free, profusely illustrated, and ever growing digital What’s Out There Olmsted guide, that currently features more than 325 North American sites designed by Olmsted Sr., and his successor firms, and some 100 biographies of the Olmsted family and the firm’s many employees, consultants, and collaborators.
In addition, Experiencing Olmsted: The Enduring Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s North American Landscapes, a 344-page hard cover guidebook to over 200 Olmsted landscapes has just been published by Timber Press.
Inspired by the activism of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., and others, The Cultural Landscape Foundation has organized the Oberlander Prize Forum II: Landscape Activism for Friday, October 28, 2022, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, TX. The event will focus on activist practices addressing issues including race, gender, climate change, and other pressing matters.
First issued in 2003, Landslide has highlighted more than 300 significant at-risk parks, gardens, horticultural features, working landscapes, and other places that collectively embody our shared landscape heritage. Recently, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy focused on sites associated with labor, civil and human rights, Landslide 2019: Living in Nature highlighted sites affected by human-induced climate change, Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead, timed to the centennial of women’s right to vote, focused on sites across the country designed by women, and Landslide 2021: Race and Space, featured sites associated with African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native people. Landslide designations have resulted in advocacy efforts that has saved numerous sites. Once a site is enrolled in the Landslide program it is monitored by TCLF.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is a Washington, D.C.-based education and advocacy non-profit established in 1998 with a mission of “connecting people to places.” The organization educates and engages the public to make our landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. TCLF is also home to the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.
Photos, from above: Postcard of Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park courtesy Newburgh History Blog; Genesee Valley Park courtesy Library of Congress; and Coe Estate courtesy Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.